Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 11th February 2021.

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Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1:12 pm, 11th February 2021

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which builds on the point made by Jim Shannon that it is important not just in this place, but for other elected representatives, that wherever they are representing their constituents they should be able both to continue doing their job and to bring up a family. We need in this place and in other elected forums to be able to represent the whole country. We say that we represent Britain or our local community, yet too often we do not look like the communities we are meant to serve. I hope that with the sorts of changes in the Bill, and with those in devolved Administrations and councils, we will make ourselves more representative.

Although the measures in the Bill amount to positive change, there is understandable alarm about this Government’s track record on workers’ rights more generally. It is important that while we today make changes to help women in this place, we also think about employment rights and women’s rights more generally. Just like this Bill, the Government’s new employment Bill should be an opportunity to extend and safeguard workers’ rights, not water them down. However, after a year of silence on that Bill, the Government have failed to deliver on their promise to enhance the rights of all new mums. Pregnant women have found widespread discrimination throughout this pandemic, with many left without basic maternity pay and instead put unlawfully on to statutory sick pay during the pandemic. Indeed, there is a stark contrast to be drawn between the Government’s urgent passing of this legislation, which we support, and their inaction on behalf of struggling pregnant women across the country. I hope that today the Government will reflect on what more they can do to help women in this country.

The Government should also be doing more to help the parents of babies born prematurely. Under the current rules, maternity leave of up to 52 weeks starts when the baby is born, but because a premature baby can spend weeks in hospital, mothers are effectively cheated of spending some of the leave with their new child. I raised this subject two years ago, as a Back Bencher, based on casework in my constituency and working with Bliss—the charity for babies born prematurely or sick that does such brilliant work. I called on the Government then to change the rules so that new parents of premature babies are not put under further unnecessary pressure; today, I again urge the Government to bring forward plans to ensure that parents of premature babies are given the time and flexibility granted to other parents to care for their baby once their baby is home.

At present, Ministers have no rights when it comes to maternity, paternity or adoption leave. If a Minister wants to take maternity leave, as the Paymaster General set out, the rules do not allow for them to continue to receive a Government salary along with the person providing their maternity cover. It is right that that should be changed to remove that barrier in a woman’s career. The Bill would end that anomaly and mean that Ministers would not have to face being financially penalised or forced to stand down from their ministerial role to care for a newborn. The changes would bring Ministers into line with most civil servants by providing them with a period of six months’ leave on full pay.

Last year, there was cross-party support for the change that now allows MPs who are new parents to use the proxy voting scheme, so they can spend precious time with their new child. The proposals before us today represent another baby step in what should be an ongoing modernisation of working practices to ensure that women do not get a raw deal at work due to failure to move with the times. It is a shame that it has taken the pregnancy of a member of the Cabinet—happy news though that is—for this Government to realise that improving the workplace rights of expectant parents should be a priority. This change will benefit family life, remove a barrier to career progression, and ensure that having a baby does not come with a financial penalty as well as the sleepless nights that none of us can prevent. However, we need to see far more progress by the Government on this issue to ensure that women and all workers are treated fairly in the workplace, including when they have children.

We are behind the times when it comes to adopting modern, family-friendly working practices in Parliament and in Government, and change is long overdue. I ask the Minister to make a firm commitment to review and explore, as a matter of urgency, further potential reforms that can be made with cross-party support to ensure that this “mother of Parliaments” is a Parliament that genuinely welcomes mothers. This should be the start, not the end of a journey by this Government to deliver more employment rights and to give workers in all workplaces and in all jobs the protection and support they need and deserve.